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'Impatience has become a permanent factor in elections'

By Shobha Warrier
August 12, 2015 20:57 IST
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'It is good for the country, but it is not good for a politician... What we call impatience is actually desperation to needing something NOW.'

'Our politics is restricted by one factor; that our Parliament is full of villages. 40% of the country now lives in cities, but only 25% of Parliament comes from the cities.'

Voters wait to cast their ballots in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

Long-time readers may recall Ashwin Mahesh's columns on

The former NASA scientist and astronomer is now a social technologist and a politician, a member of the Lok Satta Party's national leadership.

As the Lok Satta Party gets ready for next week's Bangalore local body elections, Ashwin Mahesh speaks to Shobha Warrier/ about the 'new politics' emerging in urban India.

The basic principles of both the Aam Aadmi Party and Lok Satta Party are almost the same. Both parties came into being to fight corruption.

Does it mean nobody else is like us?

In an ideal world, it shouldn't be true; every political party should be like that. Everybody should be clean. In that sense, yes, a similarity between the Aam Aadmi Party and Lok Satta party exists.

Personal integrity and probity in public life should be the minimum qualification for office.

The second similarity, which is absolutely clear to everybody, is the focus on decentralisation, citizen participation and empowerment for public decision-making.

But there are also points of divergence, which are not super critical, but they do exist. We have shown that it is possible to build politics without money and muscle, without dividing people on caste and religion, but we have not yet shown that it is possible to win without promising freebies.

Is that not what the AAP did in Delhi? Instead of offering fans and computers, they offered free water and electricity...

Finally, what did they do? They said the government would pay the bill. They took from the taxpayer and are paying it themselves. Instead of lowering the cost, they are just paying the money from the exchequer.

Why is populism a challenge? Because it carries the risk of disincentivisation of the producers.

In Delhi, Arvind said he was going to create 500 new schools. 500 new schools means 20,000 new teachers. It is not a joke to produce 20,000 new teachers in a system. You can't give something of good quality in a populist way. Look at what happened to the Akash tablet.

You were part of the India Against Corruption movement. When the Aam Aadmi Party was formed, did you ever think of joining it?

Arvind asked me to join the Aam Aadmi Party and its national executive. I declined at that time because I was already in the Lok Satta. I don't believe in switching political parties because it is expedient. I was invited to the launch of the party and I attended it. I was the only person from another political party who attended and spoke at its launch.

Initially, we worked incredibly hard to make the two parties work close together at the highest levels, but it just didn't happen.

But even now, AAP volunteers call me for something or the other.

Both the Lok Satta and AAP stand for similar ideals, but AAP became a huge success. Is it because personality politics is what succeeds? Arvind Kejriwal has become a cult figure.

Partly, yes. Arvind certainly has become a larger than life figure. There are other reasons also. One is urbanisation. Delhi is a fully urban small state. The physical campaigning or campaigning on the streets matters.

Thus, a popular perception will be created that you are everywhere. That is why 'New politics' emerges always in urban areas, that too all over the world. But it cannot be replicated in large states like Karnataka or Andhra.

It is not that corruption is not there elsewhere. But over a period of time, it crystallised in a certain way. The first anti-corruption movement started in 2010. I remember Arvind and JP (Lok Satta leader Jayaprakash Narayan) were here in December 2010 and we held a rally here in Bangalore.

That was the first public rally against corruption, to my knowledge. Almost 3,000 people came to that rally and they were all middle class Bangaloreans protesting on the street, which was a reasonably new phenomenon.

We called it SAAKU, which meant Enough in Kannada. That's when we thought if we could do this in other cities also. Elsewhere, we ran it as India Against Corruption.

In February, Anna (Kisan Baburao Hazare) came on board and wrote a letter to the PM on the Lokpal bill. Nobody in the ruling party at that time realised that this could explode on their face. They lost his letter, and came and asked us whether we have another copy of it.

On the first day, we had only 40 people at the fast site. On the 2nd day, there were 200 people and on the 3rd day, 800 and on the 4th day, there were 10,000 people. It just exploded. But it ended badly.

Do you feel it was natural for the movement to end up as a political party?

I was already into Lok Satta at that time. For me, the distinction between the movement and political party did not exist. By and large, there was nobody from political parties.

I think other than the Lok Satta party, there weren't anyone from any political party but in my mind, it was always a political movement.

Is there anything wrong in being political?

There is nothing wrong but somewhere, Anna or somebody else thought if we said we were political, people would respond saying, don't fight on the streets, contest the elections.

At that time itself, people like (Congress leaders) Kapil Sibal, (M Veerappa) Moily, etc told us, if you have the guts, contest the elections. Today, they must be regretting taunting the movement. Today, the Kapil Sibals have no standing in Delhi politics because of the challenge.

In the meeting, there was Prashant (Bhushan), Arvind (Kejriwal), Yogendra (Yadav), Kiran (Bedi), Anna and I from IAC and 50, 60 others were also called who were genuine outsiders.

The overwhelming majority felt a political party should be formed and Anna agreed with everything during the day. Then, he went out and disagreed.

I feel Anna lost out tremendously with this decision to walk away from IAC. I don't think anybody cheated Anna.

You mean had Anna been with them, the outcome would have been different?

Not the outcome, certainly his image would have been different. Even now, the overwhelming majority of vote the AAP got in Delhi was because people thought these people would stop the hafta on the streets. Yes, populism is also a reason.

How difficult is it for the AAP to deliver the promises?

The problem is: How do you incentivise producers to keep producing public goods in an environment where you are constantly saying public goods should not cost? The correct answer is, then the government should produce these goods in reasonable quality and quantity.

Does that mean what they say are more idealistic, and impossible to implement?

Time is the biggest factor. Today, the voter wants to judge you every second day. But some problems cannot be solved overnight.

Do you think that is also happening to Narendra Modi?

In Narendra Modi's case, it is a different kind of problem. He promised things that cannot be delivered by him, but by the state and the local government. You have to promise things you can deliver in the time-frame you can do when in power.

You can build 40 schools and not 500 schools. But if you say you will build 40 schools, will voters vote for you?

Both Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi were with IAC, but in the Delhi elections, she was wiped out...

What happened to Kiran was what happened to Anna. Nobody will say Kiran Bedi was corrupt; nobody doubted her. IAC was a group against corruption, and she was a major part of it, and you can't suddenly join a mainstream political party.

The halo is not attached to you, but to the message.

Anna's halo also dropped because he walked away from the message. Kiran's halo dropped exactly because of the same reason; she walked away from the message.

AAP is now behaving like any other political party.

I disagree. I would attribute this to the complexity of the space you are trying to create. There should be a space for clean politics and decentralised exercise, in India.

If you look at the way politics is evolving in India, you see more citizen partnership. It is society that is evolving, actually.

You mean parties like Lok Satta, AAP etc are a culmination of the citizen's desire to be a part of nation building?

100%. This is Abraham Lincoln's 'By the people' part.

Is this a natural progression of democracy or the frustration of the people with the present system?

It is progression, but whether it is natural remains to be seen. It has gone in different ways in different countries. Certainly people expect more autonomy, local control, more empowerment for their choices, and in that sense, it is a common progression. But it is not in their ambit to solve certain problems, say like the fiscal deficit.

You said 'New politics' emerges in cities world over. Does that mean new politics can succeed only in urban areas like Delhi?

In Lok Satta, we have taken the view that it is in cities that it is most do-able. As the purchasing power of people increases, their expectation of better governance also increases.

Delhi has that advantage. Its per capita income is 2 to 2 1/2 times more than the national average. That is why Delhi is more receptive to this kind of intervention.

The economic engine of the country is driven by cities. Even the prime minister is talking about smart cities. So how do you drive the cities in a manner that can drive the imagination of the country?

Our politics is restricted by one factor; that our Parliament is full of villages. 40% of the country now lives in cities but only 25% of the Parliament is coming from the cities.

As you have not empowered local governments, you don't see a mayor becoming a chief minister or a prime minister like you see in the US. Yes, now you have (Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra) Fadnavis, that's all.

Also, in one year, what can a mayor do in a city? In most states, the secretary to the state is more powerful than the mayor.

This is a structural weakness and that is because the country was formed first, then the states and then the local bodies. So, it is not bottoms up.

I think aspirational politics is becoming more and more common. This is the good time to be in Lok Satta and drive it forward. I believe that aspirational politics is more allied to personal liberty than to socialism.

Impatience has become a permanent factor in elections.

Is it good for a country to have this kind of impatience?

In a way, it is good for the country, but it is not good for a politician.

Will impatience erupt into disenchantment and violence?

If the impatience is dealt with honestly, it can be addressed. What we call impatience is actually desperation to needing something NOW.

IMAGE: Voters wait to cast their ballots in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Photograph: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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Shobha Warrier /